What does the rise and rise of Asmodee mean for the board game industry?

Logo_AsmodéeI listened to board game industry commentators largely gloss over the recent acquisitions of Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight by Asmodee Group with interest.

The vast majority of responses seemed to be, “Well that’s good huh?” with very little actual thought put into the topic. Naysayers tended to be brushed off as fear mongers, seemingly due to the fact Asmodee is seen in the industry as a good egg.

On a superficial level, you can simply read the press release and agree with the publishers that this is purely a US/EU buyer/gamer win/win – everyone will benefit from increased resources, distribution channels etc etc on their opposite side of the pond.

Now I’m no expert, but I’d like to put a few things out there for debate. I don’t think this is something we should just accept and move along from without digging a little deeper into the possible ramifications.

Euraze-who?

While everyone and his meeple announced this as the gaming news story of 2014, very few spoke about the fact 2014 also saw French private equity firm Eurazeo buy an 83.5% stake in Asmodee for €98m – making it just another portfolio company in its €6bn stable of assets. While we were innocently talking about the possibility of slightly cheaper Star Wars minis on our local games store, the business press were talking about a possible new contender on the high street for Hasbro and Mattel.

I recently read an old article from the Harvard Business Review titled The Consolidation Curve. It looks at new or deregulated industries and how they have a “clear consolidation life cycle” with your average successful industry taking around 25 years to move through it fully. And this is every every industry, so there is no reason to suggest board (or should I say hobby) games will be any different.

Very briefly (I’m no business grad), this curve moves through four stages:

  1. Opening: After one or a few companies start the industry, their market share quickly drops to between 10-30% of the market as competitors arise – start-ups and spin-offs, plus consolidating companies from other industries.
  2. Scale: Major players emerge and buy competitors. The top three grow back to 15-45% market share as the industry consolidates. It’s all about protecting a core culture while taking and keeping the best people and products in the industry.
  3. Focus: Aggressive expansion sees the top three empires grow to control 35-70% of the industry, while there will generally be 5-12 players in the market. It’s now about global deals, profitability and the eradication of under performers.
  4. Balance and alliance: The big three now have 70-90% of the profit and concentrate on alliances, as there’s nothing left to grow into. It’s about defending their position, while looking for areas to branch out into – while avoiding regulation.

I think there’s an argument that says we have just moved into phase 2, ‘Scale’, and that our third industry ‘major player’ has begun to put its stall out.

Is it fair to say we now have Mattel, Hasbro and Asmodee?

The wrinkle point in these four stages, in terms of hobby games, is it was very much a cottage industry – but it has always been a little brother to a giant: high street toys and games. But now we can see the rising tide in terms of sales, boosted by a mainstream media softening towards nerds thanks to smartphones and tablets. It was only a matter of time before a big investment firm took a punt on the industry – and is it any surprise 2014 was also the year we saw Mattel dipping its toe back into euros at Essen with Bania?

Using the UK as an example, where Mattel and Hasbro had things sewn up was the high street; but even this has started to change. Non-traditional stores such as book shops have started to take hobby games seriously, while board game cafes and bars are starting to appear – let alone booming online sales. So where are people getting these games from? Well the UK hobby games distribution market has been sewn up by Esdevium, but don’t worry – it’s in safe hands of its owner, Asmodee.

The quote you hear all the time from the board game media is “you don’t go into the board game industry to make money” – but what they don’t add on the end is, “unless you’re going into manufacturing or distribution”. These firms employ creative people, of course, but they’re first and foremost businesses: just like film studios or record companies, they rely on exploiting (as in – making full use of) the talents they sign to make profit.

Mattel and Hasbro work in the same way. Designers are employees, not people worthy of having their names on game boxes. They work within the confines of a business remit for a product, rather than having total creative control, and work to deadlines. None of these things are intrinsically bad; they’re just not ideal for free spirited hobbyists, or people doing these things for the love rather than to pay the mortgage.

When will me move from ‘scale’ to ‘focus’?

There are so many questions. Will Asmodee work towards a similar structure to compete with these two gaming behemoths on an even footing? Will other conglomerates of gaming companies form to try and compete with them on a global distribution scale, creating the 5-12 ‘focus’ stage players? Is the upward trend of hobby games too slow to see this happen in the next five years – or is it actually a blip, that will see sales decline and enthusiasm wane from such big investors (which could of course have its own ramifications)?

From both a designer and customer perspective, these will be interesting times. An obvious move would be to see a smaller range of games being released each year from a shrinking number of players, but these games being released in bigger volumes as the popularity of the hobby increases.

This would drive price-per-unit down and force games on lower print runs into niches or bankruptcy – which, judging on the quality of many one-and-done Kickstarter projects, wouldn’t be a problem and will probably happen anyway as people come to their senses. But then of course there is the rise of the digital space and the possible love-love relationship that should blossom between 3D printing and print-and-play. There are just so many possibilities!

Of course I’m sure this article will be labelled naive, and I’ve already admitted I’m no expert – but if helps create a bit of debate on the subject that goes beyond giving this news a ‘Story of the Year’ award then I’m happy with that. I’m keen to learn more on the topic, and about the industry, so here’s to healthy debate.

Deus: A four-sided game review

Deus boxDeus is a civilisation building board/card game that mixes tableau building with a little bit of tactical play on a modular board.

The game is good for two to four players and only takes about an hour with two (up to two with more) which is impressive for a game that does give you that civ-building feel in a package much shorter than normal.

What it doesn’t do is span the generations. You’ll be firmly set in the classical era, building temples and academies while fighting barbarians. There is also limited player interaction in the form of military units, but they’re used to snipe small numbers of victory points and resources rather than take board position. Combat is certainly not essential.

While the quality of Deus’ art and design style are open to debate (see ‘key observations’ below) the card and board stock are good quality and the graphic design is clean (£35-40 seems a fair price). The modular board makes for a slightly different game experience each time, and while the cards are a little limited in terms of variety (I very much hope card expansions beckon) the way you can combo them still makes each game very interesting.

Teaching

Deus cardsMost gamers will soon pick up what’s going on in Deus, but that’s not to say it lacks originality. It uses familiar mechanisms but in ingenious ways, which seems to be at the heart of most of the best recent games. It’s a bit more than a gateway game, but I’d put it in the light-to-medium complexity range.

It’s very much a ‘cards with words’ game, but Deus has an elegance and simplicity that mean most cards only have about 10 words to read – and better still, I’ve had no one so far questioning the meaning of this text. In terms of teaching, it’s joyfully simple.

On your turn you have two choices: play a card to your tableau and matching building to the board (you have to have the correct building type to be able to play the card), or discard some/all of your cards to gain a special action (which is better the more cards you discard) and refill your hand with cards (usually five).

There are six colours of cards, each with its own light theme (boats tend to be good for trade, workshops for resources etc) – when you play a card into your tableau, you do its action. But what Deus really brings to the party is that when you later lay more cards in the same colour you get to do all of their actions, which rewards clever combo building. But you are limited to five cards per colour, so these clever combos don’t last forever.

Deus boardPlacing buildings is also simple in execution: you start from the edge of the board and subsequent placements move out from there (think Terra Mystica, not Small Worlds). You can place multiple of your own pieces in one space, but they must be of different types.

Scoring and resource/money gathering cards tend to reward you for having multiple buildings on the same tile, but spreading out is equally tempting tactically – to block opponents and destroy barbarian villages.

Far from being a booby prize for a bad hand, special actions can be essential and planning them well can win you the game. They are again simple to explain: a player simply discards as many cards as they wish and choose one of these cards to trigger its colour’s special action (taking either extra resources, victory points, money, cards or buildings).

The game ends when either all the barbarian villages are destroyed (done by surrounding them on the map) or all temples are placed (these are special buildings that reward you with end-game victory points).

The four sides

Deus full tableauThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I love a good tableau-builder, as evidenced by 200+ plays of Race for the Galaxy, and after playing Deus once it was an insta-buy. While it lacks the vast range of cards that sets Race apart it makes up for it with the combos and board play – exactly the kind of extra elements San Juan was sadly lacking in.
  • The thinker: There was definitely enough here to have me both strategically and tactically engaged, while the option to discard a bad hand but also benefit soundly from it was a master stroke. However I’m unsure of its potential long term without expansions, as while fine so far I can see strategic options wearing thin over time.
  • The trasher: While it’s no Race, Deus is a solid game I’m happy to play. Much like Race, going military can make for a short tactical game that can surprise people, while who doesn’t like the satisfaction of a smart card combo going off – and then going off again a few more times for good measure?
  • The dabbler: While the game is a bit ‘heads down’ for me, as there’s lots of reading to do and plans to be hatched, I did enjoy my plays. Its simple, bright and colourful with a low barrier to entry, but offers something to the more wizened gamer. I won on my second play against experienced opponents, showing the game isn’t all about ‘best player wins’ – but as its only an hour-ish, you can just go again!

Key observations

Deus colour issueSeveral people have pointed out Deus’ solitary nature, describing it as a heads-down game with little interaction. This is largely fair comment and those looking for player versus player action need not apply. However you do need your head in the game as it doesn’t have a fixed end point – while board position can very much make a difference.

Another fair-ish comment is there’s too high a dependency on getting the right card combos, making the game too random. While I’ve certainly seen people get very lucky with their draws while others have floundered, this is not a long game and can very much be played back-to-back in a session – and its no more a problem than in your average card game. Also, I find the discard action does help mitigate this issue nicely.

Some claim the game is downright ugly, while others have complained about a component error. To clear the latter up, the game comes with brown discs for ‘wood’ while the wood symbol is green on the cards. This is apparently a good thing for the colour blind and for the rest of us its a mild inconvenience. As for the ugliness, I think its harsh. Be your own judge, but if its enough to make you walk away from a very good game then more fool you.

The final point, and in my mind the most serious one, is variability. Interesting that a game accused of being too random is also accused of lacking variable strategies, but there you go. Anyway, I too am concerned that over time the game may get repetitive. I intend to deal with this by not overplaying it, but if you’re someone with a small collection who plays each of their games a lot it may be worth waiting for expansion news – unless this sort of game is right in your ballpark, then I’d say go for it anyway.

Conclusion

Deus tableauDeus is an elegant, streamlined tableau building game that for me fires on all cylinders. It’s the best new game I played in 2014, feeling like a lighter Terra Mystica with added card combo action – which just about ticks all of my favourite boxes.

Having been pretty disappointed with the ‘alien orb’ part of the recent Race for the Galaxy expansion, it’s interesting to see a much better implementation of a board here.

And having got bored fast with San Juan, it’s also nice to see how this extension can add just enough to a simple card game to give it the extra legs it needs to hold my interest.

I’ll be waiting with baited breath for expansion news, but as Deus is already knocking on the door of the BGG top 500 I’m sure it will sell well enough to merit one. Until then I’ll do my best not to play it to death… but just one more game tonight can’t hurt, can it?

The best of 2014, part 2: My top board and card gaming experiences

Empire Engine AEG main picThere’s no doubt 2014 was another big board-gaming year for me. What I’d thought about as an obsession has just become the norm, but I’m comfortable with that. I’m loving and contributing to the hobby, so who cares? It’s a brilliant community and I’m proud to be part of it.

My 6 best gaming experiences of 2014

In no particular order:

  • Paros 2012 041Paros: Our second trip to board gaming paradise to this beautiful Greek island was very different to our first, but I found it equally enjoyable. There wasn’t the same sense of adventure and exploration, while some bad news leading to an absentee made it a little sombre, but t the same time we totally relaxed and just swam, gamed and ate/drank. Our hosts were again amazing, we played 20+ games (many off of my ‘to play’ wishlist) and I really hope we can go back again – hopefully in 2016.
  • Essen: I’ve written plenty about my third trip to Essen in previous posts, so won’t say much here. I certainly hope to get some kind of pass (press/exhibitor) again in future as it was a major advantage in traversing crowds; and with the promise of the Empire Engine German edition in 2015 I’ve already got my hotel booked for next year! I won’t stay beyond the Sunday though – it proved a bit much, even for me.
  • Oxford: Empire Engine also gave me, Zoe and Matt an excuse to go to Oxford for a weekend to try and promote the game at the UK’s premier board game cafe, Thirsty Meeples. While we didn’t do much with the game, it was Zoe and my first proper touristy trip to Oxford, which was lovely, and the cafe was amazing. We’ll definitely be back to both, hopefully next year some time.
  • France 2014 the gangFrance: LoB buddy Tom invited a group of fellow gamers to stay at his family’s cottage in the south of France for a few days of country air and gaming – and lovely it was too. I ended up playing 36 games in four days, which included plenty of breaks for great food, booze and a lovely walk to find a TV and watch some World Cup footie. Would be great to do this again one day soon (if you’re reading Tom…).
  • Home and away: While I failed to get much game evangelising in this year, we did at least have some really nice weekends of gaming with like-minded gaming couples – namely Karl & Ann and Paul & Donna. This proved to be a lovely blend of walking, boozing, eating and gaming both in St Ives and London and are they very much on the agenda for 2015. I only wish I’d thought about things earlier and arranged something for New Year’s Eve – again, it’s firmly in my mind for the end of next year.
  • Eastbourne: Once again, my two trips to Eastbourne for gaming weekends-on-sea with the London on board regulars were great fun. Zoe only came to the Easter one this year, leaving me to fend for myself in November. Both were great in different ways and I think the plan is now set for following Eastbourne trips, as long as we keep getting invited.
  • St Ives Board Game Group: While Zoe and me have enjoyed our first full year in St Ives, we haven’t exactly integrated into the community. Generally it’s your typical town and people seem to have known each other for years, so while friendly enough it never feels very open. So it was great when this board game group started up and I got to meet some like-minded individuals – and they’re the ‘normal’ kind of folk too, not the weirdy nerdy ones (well, mostly). Long may it continue.

My top individual game plays of 2014

Deus boxI stopped doing my gaming year blog on BGG in October as it was taking too much time; but I’m still recording my plays there and including a little bit of extra info on each play. Here are my choices of month-by-month playing highlights:

  • January: It’s nice to be reminded how much you like  game, and doing this list has brought Manhattan Project back into my mind through all those shiny new Essen releases. Andy, Carl and me had a great close and tense game back in January that I won on 62 points – but both the other guys would’ve won on their next turns.
  • February: It was a year liberally sprinkled with great couply games weekends, but the gaming highlight was a game of Concordia with Ann, Karl and Zoe at ours. I won a wonderfully tight game that saw the four of us separated by just 12 points.
  • March: Sci-fi behemoth Twilight Imperium, bought for Andy’s 50th, took the March crown. I somehow talked people out of beating me to a pulp while sneakily lining a few points up. Just when I thought the game was up I survived another round unmolested and walked into the last territory I needed. It won’t happen again.
  • April: Finally getting my own copy of Brass, getting it to the table, then Zoe enjoying it, was brilliant – but a more typical game of ours stood out: A really close two-player game of Castles of Burgundy on a quiet evening in with a bottle of wine. The new games, the holidays, the get-togethers – all awesome. But that’s what it’s all about.
  • May: Our trip to Paros was lovely, and we played plenty of thinky games, but the stand out experiences were silly games of Cash ‘n’ Guns and Tumblin’ Dice. The former was purely daft fun, while the latter shows that it’s not impossible for me to be good at the occasional dexterity game. 
  • June: Another title was knocked off my ‘classics I need to play’ list in Manhattan – a beautifully nasty and stripped down area control abstract that was the first board game in ages I demanded back-to-back goes at after loving it the first time. Honourable mention to outdoor game Molki, which I bought after falling in love with.
  • July: I’d wanted to play Lords of Vegas for years – and when I finally did, it blew my mind. I played against two seasoned vets (Martin and Rocky) who showed me the depth the game can go to; I was purely along for the ride. Luckily both helped me along, I’m sure to their own ends, but Martin won out. And a mention for a great game of Letters to Whitechapel at the St Ives Board Game Group, where we failed miserably to capture a very sneaky Dan but had great fun trying.
  • August: Two great début experiences, with Formula D just beating off Dead of Winter for top spot. I was down and out going into the big final corner, second last of seven. But as it transpired I was the only player who could get into the outside lane and had luckily got the gears just right, letting me sling shot around the outside for an unlikely win. Shake and bake!
  • September: The beauty of Ra is its unpredictability – and September saw the perfect example. I had a strong looking tile set going into the last round, but not much could make it better. I grabbed things early but thought the time left would let Carl and Andy prosper – only to see a crazy string of Ra tiles scupper them both.
  • October: Essen and Eastbourne – what a month and so hard to pick a winner. My first games of both Deus and Caverna were amazing, but it was my plays of ebbes and First to Fight that stole the show. Both were played wit the designers, both were both fun and funny, while both were also fantastically entertaining games that I subsequently bought. Absolutely what Essen is all about.
  • November: Two variants of games I’d looked forward to a lot shared November’s prize. Basari: Das Kartenspiel was everything I’d wanted it to be (Basari in a little box while losing nothing), while the finished version of Snowdonia: The Necropolis Railway was everything Zoe and me had helped make it become in testing. Mage Wars with LoB friend Paul was also a very close contender and if I hadn’t been counting the minutes before I’d had to go home, rather than enjoying a relaxing beer, this may have taken it.
  • December: Matt Dunstan does, compared to me, have a big fizzing brain and I think he expects to beat me at any strategy game we play. At Thirsty Meeples in Oxford I taught him and manager John Deus – a game I’d played twice before. Matt started getting pretty smug half way through as the points rolled in, but I had a pretty good engine of my own going. In the final tally I’d beaten him into second by three points and oh boy, was his face a picture. I just wish he’d said, “does not compute” in a robot voice. He was genuinely surprised and yes, sadly enough it made my day.

My most played games in 2014

Race for the GalaxyIt was another year of experiments, as out of more than 500 total game plays in 2014 more than 130 were games I only played once.

When you add more than 100 plays of unpublished prototypes, that’s almost half my plays.

Only a few games made double figures again this year, with two games holding their places in the top three – but being separated by one cheeky new entry…

  • 18 – Race for the Galaxy (22 in 2013 and ‘most played’ every year ever)
  • 16 – Empire Engine
  • 12 – Ticket to Ride (13 in 2013 and still my go-to gateway)
  • 10 – Can’t Stop 

While this looks a bit grim for my top titles, lots of my favourite euros games were on or around five plays including Deus, Snowdonia, Bora Bora, Copycat, Terra Mystica and Concordia. With such a big collection, it stands to reason I’m having to spread them thin! But no, it’s not something I’m totally happy with – especially when I look at some of the crap games I was subjected to in 2014!

I really don’t think this will look the same next year. I already feel as if I want to spend more time playing the games I really like, while I’ve got a lot of ‘must play’ titles off my wishlist in the last couple of years. I’ve also signed up to the ‘33×3 Challenge‘ on Board Game Geek, which aims to get you to play 33 games 3 times each during 2015. This will hopefully encourage me to get a bunch of my favourites to he table more often.

Looking back to 2013

Merchant of VenusAfter 10 plays of Kingdom Builder in 2013, I only played twice this year. Lost Valley again failed to hit the table in 2014, while Merchant of Venus and Tikal – two of my favourite new games last year – were played a lot less than I’d predicted. But these are all on the aforementioned ’33×3′ list, so should see some more love this year!

Cuba and Earth Reborn had also gone unplayed through 2013 and I’ve since traded Cuba, while Earth Reborn won’t be far behind. They’re both good games, but the former feels too much like work while the latter I simply can’t see myself playing – I’d need a regular partner and that’s simply not going to happen. At least I managed four games of For Sale – I still can’t quite believe I didn’t play it all in 2013.

Bring on 2015!

As I mentioned above, the German release of Empire Engine this year already has me excited about next year’s trip back to Essen. It may even arrive in another language or two, which would be amazing. Also, as we’re not off to Paros in 2015, I’m hoping to go to my first UK Games Expo in Birmingham in May – even if only for a day to check it out and maybe give Empire Engine a little push there too.

I also have a couple of 2014 prototypes still with publishers, so there’s also the chance  follow up may also be at Essen too – but that would probably be too much to ask for! I do intend to stick at  designing games though; but I’m not ramping that up at all, as much as I’d like to (although working on an expansion for someone else’s game is a distinct and exciting possibility). It just doesn’t seem financially viable right now.

I’m also hoping to leverage the ‘designer’ tag a little, especially in terms of getting myself onto some podcasts in 2015. I have spoken agreements to get on as a guest for two already and if they go well, who knows? Maybe I’ll look to start doing something a little more permanent. I’ve enjoyed radio when I’ve done it in the past, so why not?

As for new purchases I really am going to try and rein them in, but when I haven’t I said that? But I may actually keep the promise this year. If nothing else, this year has taught me that I have a lot of awesome games on my shelves that I don’t play enough and that i’d love not to be rubbish at!

Part 1 here!

* For previous entries, see my 2012 and 2013 posts.

The best of 2014, part 1: My best new (and ‘new to me’) games

Deus boxMy collection now stands at 150 games (up 20 or so), which I’m fine with. I’m not keen on it getting much bigger though; and the proof is having actually sold some this year, as well as trading some away.

December 7 saw my 500th game play of 2014 – 50+ more than 2013 and 100+ more than 2012. I mainly put that down to more chances to binge play (long weekends etc) rather than a general daily change in my activity (more on those trips below).

I don’t see 2014 as a vintage year for new releases, although there are of course a lot of titles I’ve not played (heavy euros like Panamax and Kanban spring to mind). But I’ve been happy with the ones I’ve bought and many others I’ve played that were new to me.

The best 12 not new but ‘new to me’ games of 2014

I always intend this list to be a top 10, but can never quite boil it down. Maybe next year – surely there can’t be that many old games I’m going to love I’m yet to discover? Bah, who am I kidding…

Bought

  • Navegador: As a fan of Mac Gerdts’ rondel games it was a crime I hadn’t played this title, considered by many to be his best. It took about about five minutes to fall for it, and it was in my collection a few weeks later.
  • Brass: I managed to pick this classic up in a trade and it was in perfect condition. I’ve only played it once since – which is the main reason I need to par down my buying. I have to get this game, and others, to the table more.
  • Bora Bora: This Feld passed me by in 2013 but has since become one of my favourites. While accusations of ‘point salad’ are true they’re also lazy; the underlying tensions here take it above many of his other complex titles.
  • That’s Life!: Roll and move! Who knew it could be fun for adults too? This is daft, light and fast while giving some shout/laugh out loud moments in every game. It hasn’t failed me yet with all kinds of groups.
  • Uptown (AKA Blockers): I grabbed this on a whim as it was cheap on Board Game Guru and it turned out to be a real winner. A light abstract that plays well with 2 or 4 players (I’ve not tried with 3 or 5), it packs a lot of decisions into 30 minutes.

Not bought (yet…)

CavernaThis is in order, top to bottom, of likeliness that I’ll have them before next year’s list:

  • Caverna: Like Agricola, but with much of the decision space moved away from the start of the game and the reliance on a food engine almost totally removed. It’s niggling away at my wallet and I’m unlikely to be able to resist…
  • Manhattan: This put my nose out of joint at Essen. This old classic was on secondhand stalls at 12 euros on day one – then went up! I held out to get it at 10 or less and blew it. Next year, I’ll bite the bullet for sure.
  • Age of Empires III: This was one of the best games I played in 2013 but is currently out of print. The new version should be landing in 2015 though; and if it does, I’ll either grab a cheap old one or buy the new edition.
  • Tumblin’ Dice: I have a great outdoor game in Molky, but no indoor dexterity game. I’ve played this twice now and have loved it both times – but it’s £50. Like Caverna, this one keeps reminding me it’s not on my shelves.
  • Africana: If I can find a reasonably priced copy of this, or grab it in a trade, I’ll snap it up. As much as I enjoyed it though, I’m not sure it’s worth the £30 price tag. It’s a light family pick-up-and-deliver building game, which I’m well covered for.
  • Lords of Vegas: Much like Africana, I’d love to have a copy of this but I don’t think I can justify the price for the amount of play it would get. So again, it’s going to be a lucky cheap copy find, or a trade.
  • Ticket to Ride – Marklin Edition: Talking of justifications – how do I justify getting another Ticket to Ride map; especially when it’s a full-price standalone version? I loved the passenger element, but would it get much play?

There were some games I really enjoyed in 2014 that I have no intention of buying, but hope to play more – the best being Le Havre, Tammany Hall and Twilight Imperium 3.

Of last year’s ‘not bought… yet’ list I have since been given Twilight Struggle as a fantastically generous gift (thanks Peter!), while picking up a copy of the new mini version of Basari at Essen. Both are real favourites and I’m chuffed to now own them.

I’ve cooled a little on Lady Alice and Dungeon Lords; the former because I’ve had a few duff games (where players have got info wrong, so ruined it) and the latter because I haven’t played it since and oddly haven’t been compelled to (maybe another play will put it back on the radar). Arabian Nights is great, but it seems like the kind of game I only need to play occasionally – and several people I know and enjoy gaming with own it.

Not much to say on expansions, but I think The Necropolis Line for Snowdonia is the best new version of this great game I’ve played so far.

My 5 favourite new releases of 2014

el gaucho gameI’m not going to be talking ‘best of’ here as there are many important 2014 releases I haven’t played: Five Tribes, Marvel Dice Masters, Abyss, Panamax, Alchemists. But then again, none of these really look like they’ll do it for me.

I was underwhelmed by diamonds, Istanbul and Splendor, although I’d happily play them again. I need more plays of Dead of Winter to really make my mind up, while Castles of Mad King Ludwig had some great elements but some misfiring ones too.

Instead, these are games I’ve bought (except Red7 – but I will soon) because they sounded right up my street and have proved to be so:

  1. Deus: Tableau building card games are right up my street and this one packs a lot of both tactical and strategic decisions into an hour of play. Opinions vary on its looks (I think it’s fine if unexceptional) and some of the components/colours are a bit dodgy, but as a quick civ-style game I think it ticks all the right boxes.
  2. El Gaucho: A Yahtzee-style dice mechanism meets set collection with a fun theme and lovely components, and at a cheap-ish price – great stuff. Again it plays out in about an hour but this works well as a gateway game, while still having something to offer more experienced players.
  3. Johari: This set collection game again plays out in an hour, is also OK as a gateway and offers a little more depth if you look for it. Unfortunately it has that slightly dull ‘gems’ theme (see Splendor, Istanbul) and people I’ve played with like it rather than love it, but I really like the clever use of turn order as a key mechanism.
  4. Red7: This is a very simple and cheap filler card game that can play as quickly as 10 minutes, but has some interesting and original mechanisms – you have to be winning by the end of your turn, or you’re out. Will it lose its lustre when the novelty runs thin? Possibly, but I’ve found it really engaging so far.
  5. Ancient Terrible Things: Another Yahtzee-style dice roller, this one has a Cthulhu theme and some lovely artwork alongside enough original ideas and decisions to make it interesting. There are certainly question marks over the price point for a game that’s essentially pretty light, but beyond that it’s a winner.

Best forgotten…

Last year I listed Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artefacts as a disappointment again after two years as a know-show. Unfortunately it is making the list here for a third and final time, as the actual ‘Alien Artefacts’ part of the expansion was a real disappointment. The extra cards were pretty good, making a very quick game when added to the base set, but overall – for something I’d waited years for – it was OK, but largely forgettable.

Camel Up was disappointing, but nothing compared to the dreadful mess that was Imperial Settlers – a game with a high BGG rating that leads me to believe people have either played it once and not realised its massive flaws; or that players are, frankly, stupid. Madame Ching was equally dreadful, but is at least getting the poor ratings it deserves.

Part 2 here!

* For previous entries, see my 2012 and 2013 posts.

Ancient Terrible Things: A four-sided game review

Ancient Terrible ThingsAncient Terrible Things is a Yahtzee-style dice game with a Lovecraft/Cthulhu theme that adds elements of hand management and special powers to take it to a slightly higher level.

But if you’re a relatively new player, don’t be put off. While there’s lots of cards in the box there are never too many choices; this is definitely a tactical rather than strategic game.

Games tend to last about an hour with little change between player count, which is two to four players.

As for the horror theme, it’s very cartoony there’s nothing to worry about in terms of age range. Your first thought should be, do I like ‘push your luck’ dice games? If so, read on.

The game retails for just under £40, which is definitely at the expensive end for this kind of dice game. However the components are very high quality, from the box to the board through to the dice, so at least in those terms you get your money’s worth.

In a turn of Ancient Terrible Things each player will try to defeat a creature by rolling the required combination on five dice (a pair of 5 or higher, a run of three etc). Successes give you the creature card, which will earn you end-game victory points.

Each turn you also get resources and an action. Resources variously let you use cards, buy equipment, defeat creatures or alter your dice rolls – with cards, actions and equipment doing more of the same, or giving end-game points or multipliers.

Teaching

Ancient Terrible Things boardWhile Ancient Terrible Things is very much a Yahtzee game, this has both advantages and disadvantages.

While on one side it’s easy to see if people may like the game and gives people a grounding in what to expect, it also does things differently enough to make grasping the differences tricky for some.

The main thing you need to explain is how rerolls work. Unlike standard Yahtzee style games, if you want to reroll you can’t just put dice aside that you choose. Instead you have to spend a focus token on every dice you don’t want to reroll – otherwise you have to reroll everything. This can take some getting used to, but does work well.

In addition there are several other types (colours) of dice which work differently: red dice are one-shot (can’t be rerolled), yellow ‘luck’ dice work like a standard Yahtzee dice (can always be rerolled for free) etc. However these only appear through equipment or feat cards, so rarely have to be explained right off the bat and don’t add too much confusion.

Beyond this, the game does a great job of explaining itself on the cards. There’s a stack of equipment (to buy) and feat cards (you always have three of these in hand at the start of a turn) but even on the first play most players won’t need to ask how these work.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While the theme of Ancient Terrible Things could be anything, the style and art do help generate an atmosphere – even if they’re nothing like immersive; the comic style font and dark green pallet will draw in anyone with a bit of a love of all things Lovecraftian. There are interesting decisions to be made most rounds, but it does always comes back to the luck of the dice. This will hopefully balance out each round, but no amount of cards can save persistent terrible luck.
  • The thinker: While largely tactical, there are some strategic elements. Creatures come in four colours and being the first to three of one type gives you a bonus card for end game scoring – but thus can be taken from you if someone overtakes you on a colour (as with the road bonus in Catan). You can also get negative points for failing to defeat a creature – but sometimes it’s worth taking this on the chin if it stops someone else getting a creature of a colour you don’t want them to have.
  • The trasher: I love a bit of dice rolling and a horror theme, while Ancient Terrible Things gives you plenty of ways to mess with people – but none of them should be nasty enough to scare off the cry babies. Big risks can give big rewards while failure is never that punishing, encouraging you to go for the big roll. And having four types of token really lets you go down one route (equipment say, or reroll tokens) or spread yourself thin, giving several routes to victory. I like it.
  • The dabbler: While horror will never be my first choice of theme for a game, this one is done cartoony enough not to put me off. The clear dice are gorgeous and there’s a nice humour running through the game, although everything is a bit dank and dark – which can be tricky in bad light. But most importantly it retains the fun factor of a good dice game while being as tactical/strategic as something like King of Tokyo without being quite so in-your-face.

Key observations

Ancient Terrible Things player boardThe “it’s OK” brigade essentially say, “This is just a Yahtzee game with a bit added on”.

In truth I can’t argue with that and if you don’t feel you need this style of game in your life it’s time to walk away.

But if you really like Cthulhu, or do like a good light dice chucker, it’s worth checking out – just prepare yourself for an expensive price tag for this style of game.

Harsher critics call it boring, saying the decisions you make don’t matter. While boring is obviously a personal opinion, the comments on choices do baffle me – I can only presume they are based on a very short playtime.

Will the player who rolls best win the game? Possibly. Will someone who rolls terribly the whole game lose? Yup. But it’s a dice game! And I’ve seen good equipment combos and spoiler play win people games, which is good enough for me.

Finally, there are inevitable comparisons to Elder Sign. Inevitable, but in my mind misguided. Personally, I see zero validity in comparing a competitive game with a co-op game – who is going to agonise over only allowing themselves one Cthulhu dice game in their collection, even if the play styles are miles apart? Of course if you like co-ops more, go for elder Sign – but there’s really no other basis on which to compare the two.

Conclusion

Ancient Terrible Things board close upI traded King of Tokyo away quite quickly as while I didn’t hate it and would play it again (in fact I loved the style and components) it simply didn’t quite have enough game to make me want to take it down from the shelf. For me, Ancient Terrible Things does.

It may be a little of style over substance getting the better of me, which is rare – but I do love the look of this game, despite it being a little too dark (pallet wise) in places. For me the playful style comfortably makes up for this and I love looking at this on the table.

It has those stand-up dice chucking moments, it has those “no!” moments on amazing or terrible dice rolls, and while bad rolling can leave you out of things on occasion most games tend to be satisfyingly close – with the winner emerging in the final count, rather than a few rounds earlier.

My one reservation is the price point. While on one hand the components are worth the entrance fee, the likes of Elder Sign and King of Tokyo both retail for closer to £25 rather than close to £40. I’m really happy with my purchase as the game is a great fit for me, but I’d be happier recommending it if they could get the price down.